Trinity 5 – My word shall not return to me empty

Sunday 12 July 2020

Isa 55:10-13

Matt 13:1-9,18-23

May I speak this morning in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 I am sure you have all heard the expression: “A gentleman’s word is his bond.

I was going to ask if anyone has any idea where the expression comes from but, as we are not in church and you are all muted, that would be even more rhetorical than usual, so I shall tell you.

It was first used in that form by Charles Dickins in “The Old Curiosity Shop” and the full quote is:

The word of a gentleman is as good as his bond — sometimes better; as in the present case, where his bond might prove but a doubtful sort of security.”

I love the fact that the second part of the quote puts the first part into a slightly different light, but we tend to gloss over that and only remember the first bit.

Although Dickins was the first to put that concept into its modern form it was actually used in the 1500s in Lancelot of the Lake in which it was said:

An Englishman’s word is his bond.”

 At this point I should probably apologise for the non-inclusive masculine language used so far and beg your indulgence as we are looking at old pieces of literature.  A more fulsome apology can be provided on my blog if required.

What does it mean to say that a gentleman’s or an Englishman’s word is his bond?

Of course, it means that if an honourable and trustworthy person says that they will do something then they are guaranteeing that they will do it without being further compelled by anything so ghastly as a written contract – hence, also, a gentleman’s agreement.

So, to say that something will happen is to guarantee that it will happen which is as good as it actually happening.  A gentleman’s word is, to all intents and purposes, as good as the deed itself.

Now, we can probably debate for hours whether it is actually true that an Englishman’s or gentleman’s word was ever his bond – you may have also heard the phrase ‘perfidious Albion’ which casts some aspersions on our trustworthiness as a nation and there may be some in Brussels right now who feel similarly, but that is by the by for this morning.

Today is your biannual reminder that God is not an Englishman nor even a gentleman.  Despite many of the words we use about God, He (and there is one right there) is probably not even gendered.  Here is something even more shocking.  God is better in every way than any English gentleman.

Now, you doubtless spotted this coming a mile off, and that’s absolutely fine as I don’t want to give you too many surprises until the church is fully ready for funerals but if a gentleman’s word is his bond then how much more is God’s word?

In Genesis 1 we have the wonderfully poetic account of how God spoke the whole universe into existence:

“And God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light.”

There was no intermediary between the word and the result – the word of God creates the result, and the result was good.

And that creative word of God which is trustworthy and which brings about the results that God intends is the theme for today’s reading from Isaiah.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seeds for the sower and bread for the eater…so is my word that goes out from my mouth.”

You probably all learned about the cycle of precipitation in school – rain comes down from the sky, falls either onto the ground or the sea and then enough evaporates back into the atmosphere to fall again as rain.  It is interesting that 2500 years ago there was an understanding of that cycle going on – the rain and snow coming down from heaven and returning to it again, but only after they have watered the earth.

In the same way as water vapour returns to the clouds God says that his word will return to him, but only after it has achieved its purpose:

It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

God does not speak in vain, his words are his bond and creates the result.

What does God’s word do in this reading?

You will go out in joy, and be led forth in peace, the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

I am pretty sure there is a song about that.

Having compared his word to rain and snow which water the earth, God then makes it clear that his word is much better than that because it can transform barren places and unpromising plants into places of abundant life and fruitfulness:

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briars, the myrtle will grow.”

God is speaking to his thirsty and hungry people, a people who had been defeated and exiled and he is promising them that they will again know joy, they will again know abundance, they will again know life in all its fulness and, when they do, creation itself will rejoice.

Although we cannot really compare our current situation to that of the Hebrews exiled from their land, never knowing when they would return, I know that many people have been feeling an acute sense of exile from normal life and, of course, from our life as a physically gathered church.  For those who feel like that then hear that there will be joy again – those things which seem desolate and barren now will flourish again.  God spoke the church into being and he is not done with it yet so the church will be again.

But, a note of caution.  The reading from Isaiah spoke about seeds for the sower and, of course, that reminds us of the parable of the sower from our gospel reading.  This always feels like a difficult reading to preach on because Jesus himself explains the meaning of the parable line by line in the same reading, so the temptation is to say, ‘what he said.’  I shall try and say a little more, but always deferring to my boss.

We have been speaking about the word of God and how it achieves its purpose.  In this parable the seed symbolises the word of God falling, or being planted, into the lives of people and how it germinates and bears fruit in different ways.  My slight struggle with this reading this week, as anyone who follows me on Facebook will have seen, is the extent to which the failure of the word of God to germinate in some people, perhaps many people, or the failure of that germination to produce a crop in some people, or perhaps many people, corresponds to God’s word achieving its purpose.  Generally, my theology tends towards free-will – I believe that God wants all people to respond to him freely.

My slight problem this week is that if some seeds of God’s life-converting word fall on stony ground and don’t germinate at all, or on thin soil and don’t last long because there are no roots. or soil so full of weeds that it is choked before it can flourish then to what extent is God’s word achieving its purpose.  Because if it was really God’s purpose for some of his words not to germinate then we are getting into the realms of Calvinist pre-destination – that some are pre-destined by God to be saved and that others are pre-destined not to be.

I have always found pre-destination to be highly unsatisfactory, indeed distasteful.  It seems to me that a God who pre-destines some to bear fruit but others to failure would be less than a fully loving God who wants all to achieve union with him.

Then I am reminded of the dimension of time.  A farmer does not just sow the seeds once, hope for the best and then call it a day.  A good farmer is in relationship with his land, he sows the seed each year, possibly more than once a year depending on the crop, he tills the soil, builds up the soil, removes the stones and pulls up the weeds.  Do we think that God is more or less loving towards us than the average farmer?  Do we think that God just sows the seed once in each life and hope for the best?

But, here is where the metaphor of farming breaks down slightly: whereas the normal field is quite passive and is merely a recipient of the seed we, I continue to believe, have a role to play in this relationship and have freewill in how we prepare ourselves to receive God’s word and respond to it.  The mid-week communion had a great reading from Hosea which continues the agricultural theme but puts some of the onus on us:

Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.”  Hos 10:12

I believe, and I continue to believe, that God is not a disinterested sower and we are not a passive and hapless field.  God is a loving farmer who wants the absolute best from his land but we also have a role to play in that relationship – we are able to co-operate with God in breaking up our fallow ground, building up our soil of faith, removing the stones and the weeds in our life and bearing the most fruitful crop we can – perhaps not the first time the seed is sown and maybe not even the 100th time, but through prayer and, yes, exercising our free will to say yes to God, it may be on the 101st time.

So even if you have heard this parable endless times before it is still open to you, and to me, to hear that word today, to allow the word of God to be planted in us and to bear fruit a hundred times more than was planted – because God’s word does not return to him without fulfilling its purpose – what is that purpose in you?